Ask The Editor

October 26, 2009

Sales of ebooks nearly triple from 2008 to 2009

The headline says it all. E-Reads reports that, from August 2008 to August 2009, ebook sales shot up from $5 million to $14.4 million.

This may be bad news for traditional publishers but it has the potential to be excellent news for the small publisher, especially the one-person shop, publishing his or her own title.

It means that there is a market for ebooks and that market is growing like kudzu.

It does not mean you can simply publish and hope that people find your books, buy them, and recommend them to their friends. You still have to publish a book that is compelling enough to rise above the pack, with a great story, well-told, and a satisfying ending. You still have to promote the hell out of the book. Otherwise, no matter how great it is, nobody will know it exists.

But if you can turn out something that others will want to read and if you know how to reach potential readers, you have an easier entry now that at perhaps any other time in history.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 17, 2009

Publishing at the crossroads: who will own the future, you or Google?

I’ve written before that I believe the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On Demand Books,  could be a publishing industry game-changer, as much and even more so than the advent of ebooks. Although the EBM is only in 10 locations now, the wide distribution of EBMs or other machines like them, would allow authors, with new or out-of-print books, to publish their own work, at lower costs than are now generally available from POD printers. Because the books get published at the bookseller’s site, the author-publisher isn’t saddled with the significant costs of warehousing, shipping and distribution.

And returns? That would be a store-by-store policy issue but here, too, the savings to the author-publisher would be significant. If a store with an EBM permitted returns, the author-publisher might have to bear those costs. But the author-publisher would be spared the expense of refunds and two-way shipping on unsold  books that were published sans demand, and then removed from the shelf and returned when demand failed to catch up to supply.

The lower overhead opens up all sorts of possibilities and Google is now showing us that the game could go either way for those who want to breathe new life into their old books.

A story today in Wired says that Google is going to offer public domain (out-of-copyright) books via the Espresso Book Machine:

Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of dusty tomes from deep in the stacks of the nation’s leading university libraries and turned them into searchable documents available anywhere in the world through its search box.

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Two issues the story doesn’t address give us the clues to what makes this so technology so important to those of us who make our living by the written word:
The possibility for POD editions had been treated as a “maybe someday” clause in the Google settlement. Someday is here, it seems, the moment the settlement gets the judge’s thumbs-up (if it does). Assuming the same pricing structure as the out-of-copyright books, Google gets a dollar, and passes along 63 cents to the Book Rights Registry (BRR). The BRR passes along to publishers what’s left after taking its unknown cut. Publishers pass along to authors — what? Maybe 10 to 25 cents per book sold?

Contrast that to what an enterprising author might get by republishing her or his own out-of-print book and offering it via the EBM. Costs to print via the Espresso Book Machine are just $3 in materials plus whatever the bookseller adds for profit and the cost of amortizing the EBM owner’s investment in the machine. But on the author-publisher’s side, when you consider eliminating the costs of warehousing, shipping, distributors and returns, you’re likely to be about where you’d be with a traditionally published book with one enormous difference. You’ve removed the uncertainty factor that drives costs to unknown, profit-killing levels and keeps so many would-be author-publishers from going it alone.

When you’re no longer working on the crazy model of providing books on consignment and assuming all financial risks, you might actually be able to run a profitable business as an author-publisher.

Can you say the same is anywhere near possible if your books are coming out of the same Espresso Book Machine but the money goes to Google instead?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

May 26, 2009

If you’ve been turned down by publishers, should you beome a publisher yourself?

We live in interesting times.

Advances are half or even a third of what they were a year or two ago. I’ve heard reports from colleagues who are accustomed to high five-figure advances for their non-fiction narratives and how-to books getting offers in the mid or even low four figures. And that’s if an author can even get an offer.

Fiction seems to be particularly difficult to sell at any price right now.

Filmmaker John Sayles’ agent failed to get a single offer on his latest novel.  Sayles has previously published acclaimed novels and is among Hollywood’s most accomplished directors and screenwriters.

The rejection of his latest manuscript drives home just how depressed the market is.

“This is really astonishing,” says Ron Hogan, senior editor of Galleycat.com, a website devoted to publishing news. “I mean, this is John Sayles! You’d think there would be some editor who’d be proud to say, ‘I brought the new John Sayles novel to this house.’ ”

Anthony Arnove, Sayles’ literary agent, sent the novel out on a first round of submissions last fall, and recently sent it to another group of editors. His goal is to land a deal with a deep-pockets publisher who can promote the sprawling, epic tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

Sayles’ 1977 novel, “Union Dues,” was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Anarchists’ Convention,” his comic short story about aging Jewish lefties, has become an American classic.

But Sayles’ earlier novels weren’t bestsellers and traditional publishers are looking for sure things. Nevermind that, as anyone who has ever browsed a remainder table knows, the sure thing doesn’t exist.

So, what should an author who has a good manuscript do? In my opinion, as traditional publishing opportunities shrink, and non-traditional opportunities expand, the best thing an author who is willing to bet on his or her own prose can do is become a publisher. I don’t mean that authors should send their manuscripts off to iUniverse or Lulu, pay a few hundred bucks, and keep their fingers crossed. That may seem an inexpensive option but it’s probably going to get you exactly nowhere. The cheap solution is actually an expensive one if nobody knows your book exists or wants to buy it.

Become a real publisher, if you have the time, money, marketing understanding, and willingness to work as you never have before for your book’s success.

More on what this means in terms of budget, planning, and everything else, in subsequent posts.

– Anita Bartholomew

April 11, 2009

Google settlement, part 3: Authors Guild’s false information

My friend Pat McNees runs a website with good information for writers and editors. She recently posted links to various opinions about the Google settlement. I have one quibble with her section on this topic: she implies that you can trust the word of Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild.

“If you were alarmed by Lynn Chu’s piece in the Wall Street Journal (Google’s Book Settlement Is a Ripoff for Authors: ‘Why allow a single publisher to throw out a functioning copyright system?’ ) be sure to read this letter to the editor from Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild: The Google Book Deal Will Help, Not Hurt, Authors, which points out essential errors in Chu’s piece.”

Most authors, editors, and agents I know, like Pat, are willing to trust Aiken’s word. If they had studied the settlement with skeptics’ eyes, and consulted with attorneys, they more likely would trust Chu.

First, let’s deal with Aiken’s whopper:


“Ms. Chu likes the marketplace of in-print books that authors and publishers depend on. So do we: The settlement leaves it alone. Authors and publishers of in-print books will be able to participate in the settlement’s programs, but only with rightsholders’ express permission.”

I can’t imagine why Aiken would make such a patently false statement about a central issue. It’s too long to be a typo. What on earth was he thinking?

“Express permission” means “explicitly stated permission.” Any author reading Aiken’s words is likely to accept those words at face value and assume that, without his or her explicitly stated permission, he or she will not be subject to the provisions of the settlement.

Wrong.

Here’s how you get to “participate in the settlement’s programs.” Do nothing. Bam! You’re in. That’s not “express permission.” That’s license by default.

But it’s worse than that because, although the Google settlement gives authors some control over display and other incidentals, if you do nothing, and allow yourself to be lulled by Aiken’s reassurances, you’ve also agreed, by default, to mandatory arbitration (a huge issue that Chu brought up in her op ed but that Aiken never addressed).

Here’s the gist of what you need to know about arbitration: mega corporations love it because they almost always win in any dispute:

“The fine print associated with service agreements from credit card, wireless phone, Internet access, and other service contracts is increasingly likely to include a clause that removes contract disputes from the legal system, subjecting them instead to binding arbitration. Superficially, arbitration sounds like a great way to settle disagreements while avoiding the fees and animosity associated with legal action; arbitrators ostensibly offer an impartial decision quickly and painlessly. But a report issued by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen portrays the process as heavily slanted towards business, and a Kafkaesque nightmare for individuals.” [emphasis mine – Anita Bartholomew]


April 8, 2009

Google Settlement: is it a bum deal? Part 2

A number of writers I know believe that the Google settlement is the best way to get their old books back into circulation. Their thinking is that, once the book is on the web as part of Google Books, the vast library of texts that Google will make available in various ways, new readers may find these old books. And the authors may realize new profits.

Let’s analyze the above and figure out whether it makes as much sense as some writers believe.

Q: Is having your book scanned by Google the only way to get it out on the web and available?

A: No. If you still have a word processing file of your manuscript you can publish your book yourself on smashwords with just a few keystrokes, in an electronic format, and offer it for sale. You’d get 85 percent of the profits from smashwords versus the 63 percent that Google is offering. And if you got a better deal elsewhere, you could take it. Contrast that with Google’s book scanning venture which requires you to enter into a binding 100+ page contract (the Google settlement) that nobody has yet thoroughly analyzed on your behalf.

Q: What’s wrong with opting into the settlement (signing the “contract”)?

A: I don’t believe that anyone has adequately parsed what’s in the settlement agreement or what its ramifications may be for the long-term. I don’t typically sign contracts without knowing whether the terms are favorable to me. Do you?

Q: But wouldn’t my book get more attention if it were part of the Google library of scanned books?

A: Not necessarily. Google, the search engine, finds material on the web for searchers based on keyword searches and ranks the material it finds based on various other criteria. As your original manuscript, if uploaded, would include all the same key words that your scanned Google Books version would, your own book wouldn’t necessarily be at a disadvantage.

Q: But I know nothing about publishing on the web. Why not just leave it to Google?

A: Again, see smashwords. You don’t need to know how to publish. All the instructions are there, plain and simple. Even so, you might decide that Google is your best option. But it’s important for this to be an informed choice. You need to weigh the costs against the benefits of agreeing to a 100+ page contract (the settlement), which is what you’d be doing in order to participate.

Q: Do I have to decide right now whether to participate?

A: Unfortunately, yes. You only have until May 5, 2009 to decide to opt out. If you don’t, you’re in. The decision is made for you. But you can opt out now – and you may be able to opt in later, according to page 33 of the settlement notice:

“If you opt out of the Settlement, you will not be eligible for a Cash Payment or to participate in any of the revenue models under the Settlement. You will, however, have the right to bring your own lawsuit. In addition, even if you opt out of the Settlement, you may still be able to contact the Registry or Google at a later date to attempt to negotiate a separate deal for inclusion of your Books in any of the Settlement Agreement programs.”

That “Cash Payment” you won’t be eligible for is all of 60 bucks. (To help you judge whether you believe this is an adequate payment, see my earlier post for what the minimum statutory penalty is for willful infringement). And you only get the 60 bucks if Google has already scanned your book. If not, you get nothing. Zip. Is that a sufficient incentive for you to opt in?

Q: Can I opt in now and opt out later?

A: Nope. You may be able to change some of the terms of how your book will be displayed or other incidentals but you will have agreed, by default, to the terms of a 100+ page settlement.

Again, do you know what those terms are? Has anyone analyzed them on your behalf and given you all the pros and cons? And have the pros been so strongly in your favor that the cons seem inconsequential?

If you haven’t done that analysis, and you’re gung ho to go ahead anyway, I’d like some of what you’ve been smoking.

– Anita Bartholomew

December 28, 2008

Nonsense from The New York Times on book publishing

The New York Times is a great paper but, every couple of weeks or so, it can be counted upon to print some unsupported and unsupportable drivel. Today’s exhibit is its report on the reasons why book publishing is in trouble. Here’s a taste:

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

They get their books from friends, yard sales, recycling centers, their own shelves, castoffs …

You get the picture. Buying and selling used books at yard sales, in bookstores and online is, according to this article, bringing down publishing.

And, as a result, Powell’s is in trouble? Huh? Powell’s is best-known as a seller of  used books. Its huge collection is available to buyers both in-store and via its website. It has always gotten those used books that it sells from people who tend to buy and sell used books. If Powell’s is in trouble, could it, in anyone’s wildest dreams be because of (pause here, please, to appreciate the lack of logic) the availability of used books?

The book industry isn’t in trouble because used books are available. If that were the case, Powell’s, listed as one of those in trouble, would be doing just fine. It provides a market for used books. And why, if people could bring down an industry by buying and selling used, couldn’t they bring down the industry by going to the library instead of the bookstore?

No, the book industry is in trouble for all the reasons it’s been in trouble for the past several years. And now, like virtually every other industry, it’s being hurt because, during a recession, people cut back on expenditures.

That’s why even Powell’s isn’t immune.

Publishing has been hurting for years and it’s easy to trace the history, if one thinks before opining. Independent bookstores were the first to suffer when, a few years back, like independent stores of all types, they had difficulty competing with big box chain stores that offered comparatively huge inventories and at significant discounts. Then Amazon crowded out the big box stores, offering far larger inventories, discounting even more and making it more convenient so that the big box stores started to falter.

And all this affected book publishers and authors. It was the independent bookstore merchants who told regular customers about the new books that they knew those customers would enjoy based on past reading habits. Once the personal relationship between bookseller and customer was gone, the book buyer had to find his or her own next good read. So books that were prominently displayed in big box bookstores got the customer’s attention. Publishers typically pay many $thousands for that prominent placement, which makes selling any book that doesn’t get significant promotional support more difficult. So, authors of books that weren’t expected to become bestsellers sold even less than they might. Amazon, too, has pay-for-play arrangements with publishers.

And now, everything is worsened by the recession. Nobody (other than Amazon), is selling as much this year as last, not clothing merchants or electronics stores or toy stores or booksellers. Publishers, trying to limit their risks, are looking for sure things: books by authors who have previously had bestsellers and books by celebrities.

What does all this mean to writers? It’s most certainly not that we will be ruined by the purveyor of used books. But we must recognize that the business of publishing is changing. We either adapt or fail.

There will still be a market for books — but in a recession bordering on depression, the market for everything is smaller, books included. So, we are forced to think in new ways. A forward-thinking colleague, with many books published by major publishers to his credit, has started his own publishing company. I believe that may be the way to go for many of us.

Random House needs huge sales in order to cover overhead, stay in business, and profit, but authors who become publishers actually need fewer sales than if published by Random House to earn as much.

What authors do need to learn is more effective marketing and promotion. And, since book sales, like other sales, seem to be moving more and more to the web, that means mastering promotion on the web. Which is a good thing for authors because promoting on the web can be far more economical than coming up with the thousands required to get books displayed on the tables in the front of the store at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

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